The controversy surrounding the election of Donald Trump as US president made many outside America have another look at how its electoral system works. However, controversy is surely not limited to America; it extends to Lebanon, a faraway small country that boasts of being an “institutional democratic” state built on consensus and entente.
Many pose questions about the logic behind the American political system, which values the electoral votes of individual states more than the direct popular votes of the electorate. The fact is that the US is a federal country, thus its political representation needs to reflect two fundamental principles without which no healthy democracy can survive.
The first is simple direct democracy whereby the numerical majority has the advantage over the numerical minority; and this is embodied in the House of Representatives where each state is represented by a number of congressmen relative to its population.
The second is respect for national unity in a diverse society, where an individual in a populous state must enjoy no advantage over another individual from a less populous state before the federal law, which must treat all Americans equally. The principle of national unity is enshrined in the Senate where all states, regardless of population, are equally represented by two senators each.
This great vision has helped make the American political system, as a whole, one of the fairest and most advanced in the world. It has sustained an ever growing and geographically expanding country since the 16th century, attracting wave after wave of immigration; and through the years each American state based on its topography, natural environment, and economic resources had specific attributes and qualities despite free and smooth inter-state movement.
The Lebanon comparison
Of course Lebanon is small compared to the US. Its “democratic” experience is also pretty modest to compare with that of America’s Founding Fathers and the legislations and agreements they adopted, even though these legislations and agreements failed to prevent the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, some vestiges of which remain until today. In fact, Lebanon too had a civil war in 1860 that helped create its almost “independent” status; and as in America’s case, the vestiges of the war remain, while its borders have changed.
Still, size and global influence aside, there is another major difference between the American and Lebanese examples, which is that the Americans have learned from their experiences, respected their institutions, and stopped bluffing themselves, which is not the case with the Lebanese.
In the US no less than five presidents trailed their opponents in the popular votes, but abiding by the Constitution, the process led them to the White House. Moreover, despite the huge diversity in a country of 320 million inhabitants, there remains a good deal of healthy co-existence. We don’t hear people calling every day for a new electoral law that enhances the share of his or her ethnicity or religious sect. Nor do we hear of people calling for foreign intervention in their favor in the light of changing international policies.
Lebanon’s case, however, is totally different. Here, even the Lebanese constitution does not deal with its people as citizens but rather as members of sectarian flocks. The constitution, which recognizes 17 sects, has “permanently” allocated each sect what has been deemed as its fair share of governmental position although population changes are continuous, as are political disagreements.
Another interesting fact is that any Lebanese may spend his or her lifetime within the confines of one sect without interacting with other sects — from birth, death, inheritance and marriage registries to education, health and employment. Thus, religious sects in Lebanon are de facto quasi-independent “states,” that have their own leaders, political parties, schools, universities, hospitals, and even sport clubs!
Given this situation and bearing in mind the vestiges of the past, the Lebanese have two living obsessions. The first is the “unfairness” lamented by the Muslims who believe they are the majority that is long prevented from enjoying what it deserved under the French Mandate (1920-1943); the second is the “fear” felt by the Christians toward the “sea of Muslims” surrounding them. The latter, led at first to separating Mount Lebanon from its surrounding area in 1861 and giving it the status of an “autonomous district,” under the joint rule of the Ottoman government and the European powers, in order to ensure the “protection” of the Christians. Then in 1920, it led to the creation of the current Lebanon (Grand Liban) under a Christian president, and a six-to-five parliamentary representation in the Christians’ favor that lasted until the Taif Agreement of 1989.
Now, after ending the “presidential vacuum” and forming the new Cabinet, all that remains is electing a new parliament to replace the current one. The latter ended its four-year term in 2013, but due to ongoing disagreement the scheduled elections were canceled and the Parliament term extended. Still, disagreements continue regarding under what electoral law the forthcoming elections should be conducted, noting that almost all political parties and blocs refuse to carry on under the current multiple seat constituency law, popularly known as “The 1960 Law.”
Alternatives on the table
There are many alternatives being put forward by parties and blocs ranging from full proportional representation (PR) as preferred by Hezbollah and its followers — which is understandable given its virtual armed hegemony — to the “Greek Orthodox Law” whereby each sect elects its own members of Parliament, including different “mixed” versions combining direct vote and PR.
One alternative, however, that seems to be intentionally and stubbornly dismissed is the one calling for a bicameral Parliament. This would comprise a senate or upper house elected by each sect, whereby all religious sects are equally represented and enjoy a veto on issues adversely affecting their interests; and a house of deputies or representatives, elected with no sectarian quota, with Lebanon as a single constituency, thus encouraging proper issue-based political parties after ridding the country of the two obsessions, namely the Muslims with “unfairness” and the Christians with “fear.”
That the idea of a senate looks like being rejected out of hand is not really surprising, if one keeps in mind the Lebanese eternal gamble in external forces and changes of regional and international balances of power. This remains the case despite the fact that the Lebanese Constitution, as adopted in Taif, called clearly for “wide decentralization” and a “senate.”
Indeed, it has become a habit of Lebanon’s factions to demand justice and fairness when they are the underdogs, but seek hegemony when they feel they are winning.
Given such a mentality, any authority devised to curtail the ambitions of the powerful and defend the rights of the weak, has no chance of being accepted, as every faction hopes one day to be powerful enough to monopolize the country, and obliterate the others. Even the one who may be weak today would rather hope for an opportune moment to gamble again, and settle old scores.
In short, this is “electoral democracy — Lebanese style.”
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.